The 1960’s were a time of monumental change, with social issues arising in the United States as well as all countries really cementing their legacy on the cinematic landscape. With such change the audience became much more mature, and in doing so the film industry was able to take bigger risks. The beginning of the decade was still loaded with the traditional movie experience people were used to seeing in the previous two decades, but it’s in the back end of the decade where younger and hungrier filmmakers were making waves, films like Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) weren’t afraid to confront the (at the time) darkest subjects in gritty fashion, and directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were putting their unique voices in the overly played, but beloved, Western. It’s a decade of continuous change and we want to show you just how much quality came from it, so here are 7 great movies from the 1960’s.
The Great Escape (1963)
Director: John Sturges | 2h 52mins | Adventure, War, Drama
Several soldiers in a Prison of War Camp decide to make a daring escape by digging tunnels under the camp. With the German’s watching closely, all the prisoners have to work together in order to make their escape a success.
With such change happening in the 60’s The Great Escape stands out as one of the last films to have the old-school Hollywood feel. It adheres to the grandeur that a lot of films from the 50’s had, using the simplicity of good vs. evil and overcoming obstacles to leave a lasting impression on all audiences alike. Sure the decade would give us much more complexity in it’s characters, and the lines between heroes and villains, but Sturges’ war epic knows that it’s story is better served within the confines of heroism and overcoming the odds.
Even though it’s good vs. evil approach is the most basic of theme for any movie, Sturges finds real sacrifice and internal stress in the bundle of characters he has. Desperation and a lack of hope are both present throughout the majority of the story, building to an escape that’s rich with tension until the very end. Even at a near 3 hour runtime, the movie uses it’s time wisely, jumping from it’s all star cast – that includes the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Gardner and Richard Attenborough – giving them real depth and a reason to root for them as individuals and not just as a squad of misfits.
Luckily for The Great Escape it hits the sweet spot just before the political and mature transition of it’s audience, using the undeniable charisma of it’s yesteryear cast and the tune-whistling score to give you one of the last, and best doses of classic heroism. While the cinematic history that follows was an ever changing beast of complexity and quality, The Great Escape reminds us why it’s themes are so universal, making the movie so accessible even 50 plus years later.
Two Women (1960)
Director: Vittori0 De Sica | Runtime: 1h 41mins | Drama, War | Language: Italian
During World War II Italy, Cesira (Sophie Loren) attempts to protect herself and her innocent daughter from the horrors happening in the country. After leaving Rome, they encounter numerous people in a similar distress.
While the first film on this list highlighted the heroism of war, director Vittorio De Sica has never been enticed by this idea. Wearing his countries heart on it’s sleeve, he consistently brings to life the horrors and struggle of his beloved Italy. Although Bicycle Thieves (1948) is probably his most well-known commentary on the subject (you can read our 1940’s list here), another film ripe with beauty and heartbreak is Two Women. Much like his 1948 film though, Two Women‘s simplistic plot really doesn’t do justice to it’s overall presentation.
It’s simply about a mother and daughter fleeing Rome to avoid Italy’s, at the time, explosive capital Rome. But what’s beautiful about the writing is that there is no real journey, the goal is survival, and while it doesn’t make for a high-structured plot De Sica allows us to experience both the beauty and the tyranny of war-torn Italy. From each character we meet that ooze personality, or the hillside backdrop that gives it’s characters some of their happiest moments, while also raising questions about speaking up or staying quiet.
Don’t let this movies beauty fool you though, while war is the bigger picture, it’s character work is phenomenal. As Mother Cesira (played immaculately by Sophie Loren in an Oscar-winning performance) spends the entire movie attempting to shield her daughter from the situations in front of them, in one fell swoop De Sica rips away any shred of innocence that his characters might have left in one scene alone. The film is lead by the vibrancy and depth of Loren’s performance, but it’s also a film that captures the essence of it’s country, raising questions and never hiding the true horrors of war from anyone.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero | Runtime: 96mins | Horror
A group of people, from Pennsylvania, have to barricade themselves in a house when people begin to rise from the grave, and attempt to eat them.
It seems like a cliche argument to say Night of the Living Dead is the best Zombie movie of all time, but the argument stands for good reason. Not only is the first real Zombie movie, but Romero’s genius is in the ability to make quality entertainment and craft within the confines of a ridiculously small budget. Sure, the production value may show now that we are a thousand Zombie movies deep, but each and every one has some kind of thanks to pay to the wonderfully simplicity and edginess of Romero’s first ever feature.
While somewhat dated, the use of black and white really helps to retain that eerie visual that’s so prominent in the film. The ghoulish look of each person can still render you horrified to this day, and the iconicism of each scene allows you to feel a sense of nostalgia no matter what Zombie movie experience you’ve had. Romero is smart to minimise what he shows on screen to allow for the films believability to sell, rather than be a tacky low budget production closer to the realm of the B-Movie.
It serves now as milestone in cinematic history for the Horror genre, spawning so many movies like it that, although can be a fresh take on the formula, still tremble at feet of Night of the Living Dead’s superiority.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Director: Karol Reisz | 1h 29mins | Drama, Romance
Young working-class Arthur (Albert Finney) spends his time working hard for the weekend. But his attitude gets him in trouble when his friends girlfriend, who he’s been having an affair with, becomes pregnant.
Although social realism in the UK has been spearheaded by internationally acclaimed directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh for sometime, Karol Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a slice of UK culture made from the cobbles that your grandparents once walked on. It’s old-school attitudes may not fly well nowadays, but it’s difficult not to be enticed by Finney’s wonderful charm and Reisz’s eye for capturing the spirit of a nation.
While Arthur’s devil may care attitude is nothing heroic, he is a product of his surroundings. Finding small ways to occupy and entertain himself in order to survive in a routine life, stuck at the bottom of the social pecking order. He drinks ale, starts fights and most notably sleeps around with whomever he wants. These actions are that of a flawed character, but while Arthur does get some kind of comeuppance, the film leisurely strolls on just like life in a working class society, working to live and trying to make the best of the situation you’ve become surrounded by.
If you’re not aware of this film, your Grandparents will be, but don’t let it’s time period discourage you from seeing such a wonderful film. One of the biggest joys a film can provide you with is to interpret real life to such an extent where you learn, whether it be about your own culture or that of another country. As for the UK, Saturday Night and Sunday Night comes straight from the heart of Britain, and may be one of the best examples of it’s culture ever put to screen.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Director: Jacques Demy | 1h 31mins | Drama, Musical, Romance | Language: French
Despite being from different backgrounds Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) fall in love and plan to be together forever. But, when the war sends Guy away, Genevieve must question her loyalty and make a decision about her future.
If you’ve ever watch Umbrellas of Cherbourg there is an uncanny feeling of familiarity, that’s because 2016’s La La Land is very similar both as a spectacle and in it’s ability to be utterly heartbreaking. But the main difference is that the French Palme D’Or winner is in a perpetual state of song. While this does take some adjusting, once you’ve loosened your ears and accepted it as the films unique approach to storytelling, it’s quite enchanting.
There is more than meets the eye to this movie though, with the two characters from different financial stability, their relationship is constantly tested by the class system as well the impending doom of World War II. The movies early romanticism is quickly challenged when beautiful Genevieve is offered a proposition by a man of wealth, as well as Guy’s absence from her side. But the strongest hand the movie has is how it juxtaposes the vibrancy of it’s backdrop with the reality of the story it’s telling.
It’s a movie that burst with life and colour consistently, and if you commit to it’s everlasting singing you’ll be rewarded with rich characters and one of the most romantic movies of all time. It may not be the first movie people leap to when they think of the 60’s, but it’s probably one of the most unique films to come from the decade, proof that France was a continuous cinematic force throughout the 1960’s.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Director: Michael Powell | Runtime: 1h 41mins | Crime, Thriller
A young man who enjoys voyeurism takes it to a dangerous level when he begins murdering women, and filming them while he does it.
Around the same time both Peeping Tom and Psycho (1960) were released and shocked audiences because of their unsettling stories. However, one was universally revered and the other ruined a man’s career and became somewhat unwatched in the years that followed. Legendary director Michael Powell did eventually get rejuvenated by Scorsese, but Peeping Tom was wrongfully forgotten by a lot of people.
The kind of movies that would be released in the following years make both films look tame in comparison, but Peeping Tom is still quintessential viewing for classic cinema fans, using genuinely wonderful techniques for it’s time to breathe a sense of genuine fear into an already perverse topic. As main character Mark prowls the streets of London looking for unsuspecting victims, the film finds depth and discussion on voyeurism all while being devilishly captivating at the same time.
It may not be as slathered across cinematic legacy as much as Psycho, and might not even be as good, but Peeping Tom is perversely unhinged and also manages to ask questions about it’s own madness. Powell was certainly a director to relish in already, but this film deserves to be seen for it’s quality, and for the lack of attention it once had.
Woman of the Dunes (1964)
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Runtime: 2h 27mins | Drama, Thriller | Language: Japanese
While in the desert, an Entomologist is tricked into a large sandpit and forced to do labour for local villagers. While in there, he is accompanied by a woman, who has spent most of her life in the pit alone.
Arguably the 1960’s is the most cinematically emphatic decade for Japan, with Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Masaki Kobayashi making some of their most pivotal films. But one standout film comes from Hiroshi Teshigahara, who’s Woman in the Dunes constantly raises it’s quality because of it’s consistently unsettling tone, and it’s ability to lift the story above it’s own high-concept of a man trapped against his will.
The first thing you notice about the movie is how well it can unsettle you just by the way it films sand. The perpetual problem of being buried in it, mounds of it cascading down into the pit and even the coarse and wretched grains latching onto every inch of your body. Every scene is beautifully shot to capture discomfort, as well as keeping it’s characters bound to each other and furthering the story. The big moments shock you, but the movie finds solace in the smaller and intimate moments between the main characters.
It’s not just in the way it’s shot though, Teshigahara uses his canvas to ask questions on working culture and what happens when the human spirit is pushed to it’s upmost limits. It’s a truly staggering film that goes above and beyond with it’s story, challenging so much in it’s 2 and a half hour runtime. Japan’s history may be rich with quality, but this is a standout regardless. Not only is it a standout in it’s countries catalogue though, it’s also one of the very best films from the 1960’s.